May 14, 2013 1:17 pm
The U.S. military has a non-lethal toy straight out of dystopian science fiction. It is, literally, a pain gun. Known as “Active Denial Technology,” the pain gun shoots extremely high frequency microwaves from a truck hundreds of meters away. When these waves hit your skin, you feel like you’re being cooked alive. Last year, Wired‘s Spencer Ackerman volunteered to get shot by the non-lethal weapon:
When the signal goes out over radio to shoot me, there’s no warning — no flash, no smell, no sound, no round. Suddenly my chest and neck feel like they’ve been exposed to a blast furnace, with a sting thrown in for good measure. I’m getting blasted with 12 joules of energy per square centimeter, in a fairly concentrated blast diameter. I last maybe two seconds of curiosity before my body takes the controls and yanks me out of the way of the beam.
Here’s what it looks like to get shot, as experienced by Ackerman:
The Active Denial pain ray is big and scary, sure. But it’s also mounted on a huge expensive truck, and thus, unlike tasers or rubber bullets, is not a thing you’ll likely see in real life right now. But that may soon change. According to New Scientist, Raytheon, the defense contractor behind the pain gun, is working on a portable version:
Raytheon is now building smaller versions for law enforcement or commercial maritime use – designed to be placed inside buildings, such as prisons, or mounted on ships for defence against, say, pirates. And soon there could be handheld versions of the pain ray. Raytheon has developed small experimental prototypes, one of which is about the size of a heavy rifle and is intended for police use.
As a non-lethal weapon, the pain ray is actually incredibly effective. The weapon causes a burning sensation so strong that it triggers “reflexive ‘repel’ reactions.” People just want to get out of the way. And, from the testing done so far, the pain gun has a low chance of doing any real damage. So far, 11,000 people have been shot, and only eight of them got burned. But these were all under proper testing conditions, not out in the field in the middle of a riot.
But as a non-lethal weapon, the pain gun has something rubber bullets and tasers and tear gas do not: it is invisible—people being shot by it will likely have absolutely zero idea what is going on, and in most cases the gun leaves no physical wounds.
This distinction, says New Scientist, got a plan to use the portable version of the device in a California prison shut down.
On the eve of going live, the trial was cancelled. It was not over health concerns, explains Chris Tillery of the NIJ’s Office of Science and Technology… The test was shut down, he says, because of an unexpected outcry in the media and elsewhere about the potential for abuse of the technology.
And this goes to the heart of the moral dilemma raised by a technology that can induce pain invisibly. It may be medically safe if used properly, but in the wrong hands, it could also be a tool of oppression and torture.
For now, says New Scientist, the potential to use the weapon in law enforcement is under review by the National Institute of Justice.
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May 14, 2013 11:34 am
It helps to have hard evidence when making a case against criminals. For those who committed crimes against humanity, that evidence often takes the form of mass graves. But locating hundreds or even thousands of buried bodies can be more difficult than it sounds. A team of researchers from the UK and Colombia hope to ease that search process by developing new means of sniffing out sites of atrocities.
In a poster abstract presented at the Meeting of the Americas in Mexico, the authors write:
Nowadays, there are thousands of missing people around the world that could have been tortured and killed and buried in clandestine graves. This is a huge problem for their families and governments that are responsible to warranty the human rights for everybody. These people need to be found and the related crime cases need to be resolved.
Currently, the science of detecting mass graves is hit or miss. Local governments and organizations try different methods of detecting clandestine burial sites, and some work better than others depending upon the circumstances. Developing a standard, refined technique for both locating the graves and determining factor such as the time of death, the researchers think, will expedite the process of convicting murderers for their crimes.
In the UK, researchers pursued this goal by burying pigs and then monitoring soil gases, fluids and other changes over time as the carcasses decomposed underground. Those results are already being applied throughout Europe. But bodies break down differently in different climates, and for this new project, researchers will bury pigs in eight different mass grave simulation sites throughout Colombia. Each of the site will represent a different climate, soil type and rainfall pattern. They plan to use grond penetrating radar, electrical resistivity, conductivity, magnetometry and other measures to characterize the grave sites over 18 months.
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May 14, 2013 10:45 am
One in three students in the UK wears lucky underwear, according to a new survey by Bic pens. And while you might laugh their habits off, there’s a reason that those rituals might actually work.
At Scientific American, researchers Francesca Gino and Michael Norton explain some of their research on rituals and behavior:
Rituals performed after experiencing losses – from loved ones to lotteries – do alleviate grief, and rituals performed before high-pressure tasks – like singing in public – do in fact reduce anxiety and increase people’s confidence. What’s more, rituals appear to benefit even people who claim not to believe that rituals work. While anthropologists have documented rituals across cultures, this earlier research has been primarily observational. Recently, a series of investigations by psychologists have revealed intriguing new results demonstrating that rituals can have a causal impact on people’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.
And there are studies to support this. If you give someone a “lucky golf ball,” they golf better. If you tell someone you’ll “cross your fingers for them,” they’ll do the task better. If you help a tennis player mentally train, they’ll play better. People who use rituals to stop smoking or ward off bad luck truly believe they work. And just believing might be enough to at least take the pressure off and make people relax and succeed just a bit more.
There’s even an argument that rituals are what bond us together, what make us human and what keep culture and society intact. Nature reports:
Rituals are a human universal — “the glue that holds social groups together”, explains Harvey Whitehouse, who leads the team of anthropologists, psychologists, historians, economists and archaeologists from 12 universities in the United Kingdom, the United States and Canada. Rituals can vary enormously, from the recitation of prayers in church, to the sometimes violent and humiliating initiations of US college fraternity pledges, to the bleeding of a young man’s penis with bamboo razors and pig incisors in purity rituals among the Ilahita Arapesh of New Guinea. But beneath that diversity, Whitehouse believes, rituals are always about building community — which arguably makes them central to understanding how civilization itself began.
Whitehouse is trying to catalogue the world’s rituals. Here he is talking on the Nature Podcast about the project:
Scientists are still trying to understand which rituals we cling to, why, and what they might be doing to us. But for now, be proud of your lucky underwear.
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May 13, 2013 3:33 pm
Drop an S-bomb today in polite conversation, and heads will likely turn. But back in the ninth century, “shit” referred to excrement in a matter-of-fact, not a vulgar, way. In the new book Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing, author Melissa Mohr explores how our opinion of this and other curse words have shifted over the years. In an interview with NPR, she delves into the history of “shit”:
It only really started to become obscene, I would say, during the Renaissance. … It basically involves increasing privacy. In the Middle Ages … when that word wasn’t obscene, people lived very differently. The way their houses were set up, there wasn’t space to perform a lot of bodily functions in private. So they would defecate in public, they had privies with many seats, and it was thought to be a social activity. That you would all get together on the privy and talk while you did this. … As the actual act became more taboo because you could do it in private now … the direct word became taboo.
The word itself likely arose from one or all of the Old English terms scite (dung), scitte (diarrhea) or scitan (to defecate). Middle English introduced schitte (excrement), schyt (diarrhea) and shiten (to defecate). Similar terms for the same thing eventually found their way into other languages as well, such as Sheisse (german), schijt (Dutch), skit (Swedish), skitur (Icelandic) and skitt (Norwgian).
As the Online Etymology Dictionary details, “shit” as a term related to excrement dates to at least the 1580s, though people had already adopted the term in reference for an “obnoxious person” by at least 1508.
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May 13, 2013 2:15 pm
Why do we LOL? Is ROFLing an innate piece of human behavior? Does our tendency to LMAO say something about us—something that separates us from the non-kekekeing species who share our planet?
For Scienceline, William Herkewitz explores the evolutionary history of laughter, a story that shows us that maybe we’re not quite so unique as we’d like to think. It’s not just that we laugh at funny things. The roots of this behavior, scientists think, go back much further and actually play an important purpose.
Herkewitz finds that various theories abound, but that the current “best guess” says that humans laugh to tell other humans not to get too fussed over something that could otherwise be regarded as scary or dangerous.
If you’re an ancestral human, says Ramachandran, and you come across what you think is a dangerous snake but actually turns out to be a stick, you’re relieved and you laugh. “By laughing, you’re communicating: ‘All is OK,’” says Ramachandran.
Ramachandran believes the “false alarm” signaling purpose of laugher explains its loud sound and explosive quality. If you want to signal something to a larger social group, they better hear it. His theory also helps explain the contagiousness of laughter — a curious quality exploited by the laugh tracks of TV sitcoms. Strangely enough, hearing the sound of laughter, on its own, is enough to elicit more laughter in others. “A signal is much more valuable if it amplifies and spreads like wildfire in the group,” says Ramachandran.
People also laugh to show pleasure, to bond with other members of the group. And in this regard, humans’ laughter isn’t special.
Our laughter, the Tommy gun staccato sound of “ha-ha-ha,” is unique in the animal kingdom. Beyond scientific anomalies like Mister Ed or Babe the pig, if you visit your local zoo you’ll be hard-pressed to find any animals making a sound you’d confuse with human laughter. But do humans, in the vast gallery of life, laugh alone? Ask Jaak Panksepp, a neuroscientist and veterinarian at the University of Washington, and he’ll tell you no. Panksepp studies laughter where you might least expect it, in lab rats.
“In the mid 1990’s we found [rats] have a sound — a high-pitched chirp — that they made most often during play,” says Panksepp. “It crossed my mind it might be an ancestral form of laughter.” And Panksepp, eager to investigate, dove hands-first into his theory. He tickled his rats.
What he found lead to two decades of research. “They’re just like little children when you tickle them,” says Panksepp. “They ‘love’ it.”
Dogs, too, laugh in their own way. As do primates. The work is a reminder that for all that humans are, and all the things we do, there’s actually very little that makes us special.
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